It’s really an amazing time to be a gamer: we, as players, have more choices than ever to occupy our time and senses. That said, the massive stock of games out there means that there are more great games than before, so games that might be considered “average” or “okay” in some respects end up feeling lackluster when compared to others.
Unfortunately, Swedish developer Double Zero One Zero’s experiment in journalism and censorship, The Westport Independent, feels lackluster when compared to its analogue, the indie hit Papers, Please.
The Westport Independent places the player at the helm of a newspaper that distributes in a dictatorial country. A new media law passes, and all media outlets are informed that, at the end of twelve weeks, they’ll be subject to the whims and demands of the government. During those twelve weeks though, you’ll choose which stories the Independent publishes, the staffers on your team that will write them, and how they’ll make their way out into the public.
You’ll micromanage everything, down to editing out specific lines of stories and changing the headlines, and your paper receives both viewership and feedback as a result, though much of that feedback comes in the form of threats. They’re all interesting mechanics, but it’s hard to feel connected to the consequences.
Papers, Please took a mechanic as simple as sorting paperwork and made it gut-wrenching. Each decision felt connected to a life while determining if people could enter Arystozka, whether it was the life of the civilian you denied access to, the family member you left starving because of your “convictions,” the pressure you felt to review more and more passports in shorter amounts of time…even in its 8-bit state, it carried everything it needed to. And maybe in a world where Papers, Please didn’t exist as a comparison, The Westport Independent would feel more fulfilling. Unfortunately, by mimicking the minimalist style and “puzzle with consequences” gameplay, The Westport Independent sets itself up for those analyses, and it simply doesn’t provide enough connection between the player and any of the important parties to make those experiences really matter.
You don’t ever share a conversation with your staff members, and the only consistent feedback you get for your progress is a series of bar graphs showing how many people bought your paper and in which districts. Without the direct emotional connection, it all feels like going through the motions. After a good six or seven in-game weeks, I just wanted to skip to the end to see the results, and at that point I’d completely checked out from the content itself.
This isn’t a bad game, to be honest, but if it seeks to inspire discussion or understanding about the effects of censorship, it misses its mark by failing to make players really FEEL the consequences of their actions, which makes the actual gameplay feel repetitive and a bit dry. Once the game itself feels stale, it’s hard to stay connected to what’s happening inside it, which is a shame in a title like this one.
Discussions about the media and the state of journalism are ones we need to be having, and The Westport Independent offers mechanics and style that may intrigue journalism buffs in a way that other games don’t. That being said, the experience could have been much more involving than what’s presented here, and it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed by the time you’ve reached the end.